There is an indescribable joy in experiencing the outside world after many months or years of incarceration. The dance of sunlight through the leaves of trees; the flicker of shadows on grass; the touch of a gentle breeze. When darkness and isolation have been the foundation of life, these simple experiences are cherished. There can even be beauty in less obvious places: I have felt wonder on seeing things like traffic lights and motorway signs. To the housebound eye, these sights are the pulse of a living, active world. As such, my heart seizes them.
Improvement – whether in the form of a fleeting better day or more sustained progress – allows the partial rediscovery of a world long denied. (I use the word rediscovery in a very loose sense: I speak not of true freedom from the prison cell, but more of a peeping through the bars.) There is joy in this rediscovery, but there can also be grief. For it is perhaps only in glimpsing the world again that one truly knows the deprivation of being shut away from it.
As I once wrote to a friend: “At times I’ve felt myself suspended between elation at discovering a simple pleasure, and despair at the reminder of just how much normality has been denied me.”
It is perhaps only in glimpsing the world again that one truly knows the deprivation of being shut away from it
The last few summers I have been able to see the sea, something that for many years I believed would never happen for me again. (The military operation involved in getting me to the coast without serious cost to my health is a subject for another day. Suffice to say that nothing happens easily at this level of illness.) This year, after such a tough winter and spring, it was especially moving.
In my diary I wrote: “Sea, sky, sand and cliffs. Seagulls soaring overhead and waves chasing into shore. Sunshine, pure air and perfect blue filling my soul. I was complete.”
On the relatively rare occasions that I see an open landscape, my mind is overawed by its scale. I am used to my horizon being measured in a matter of paces, from one wall to the next. To see it stretch almost to infinity is to realise the dimensions I am meant to live in. The human body and mind were not designed to be encased in darkness, yet, for so many of us, this is our enforced mode of existence.
“Colours so bright with the radiant light of summer. The contrast of intense sunlight and deep shadow. Vast, open space all around allowing hope to expand.”
The reminder that there is a world of colour and light and space out there can be a boost to the soul – and also a deep sorrow
The reminder that there is a world of colour and light and space out there can be a boost to the soul – and also a deep sorrow. Because for each hour I spend outside in sunshine, I have passed a thousand days in great suffering. I have hope of the experience being repeated, but also the knowledge that the darkness can swallow me again at any time.
“This year in particular, I am aware of the fragility of an experience like this; how close I always am to it not happening.”
The emotional response to seeing beyond the prison cell, and to the improvement in health which allows it, can be complex. Joy and gratitude are usually (though not always) easy to feel. I know I appreciate the world in a way that few healthy people can: I live every moment vividly, capturing the experience in words and photographs, and reliving it in memory long afterwards. More difficult to process are reactions of grief, anger and fear for the future. While logically I know that such responses are entirely justified, I still place a strong expectation on myself to feel positive emotions only. I see this in others too, as though unadulterated gratitude on improvement were the only acceptable response. After waiting many years for any sign of improvement, it can seem wrong to be anything other than delighted when it finally happens. This is especially so when close friends remain trapped in unremitting pain, unable to bear even the curtains being opened. Grieving one’s own losses is complicated when balanced with the knowledge that others have it so much worse.
I know I appreciate the world in a way that few healthy people can. More difficult to process are reactions of grief, anger and fear for the future
For me, it comes down to a simple truth: I can be grateful for what I have regained, but should not force myself to believe that this is as much as can be expected from life. Reaching ahead to a better future is an essential component of being human. As is an emotional landscape that encompasses sorrow alongside pleasure, and everything in between.
And so I celebrate the triumph over long adversity that saw me sitting on a cliff top. I treasure the memory of my spirit soaring over the sea. But I also acknowledge the aching tears shed afterwards, as grief hit me. Just like sunshine and shadow flickering through trees, they are inextricably linked.